A Vision for Justice- Justice Beth Baker, Montana Supreme Court

Recently I had the privilege of touring the National Archives in Washington, D.C.  Displayed there, within an elegantly somber and dimly lit rotunda, are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of our United States and the original Bill of Rights.  Just next door, in its own vaulted space, is one of few remaining copies in the world of a 1297 version of the Magna Carta.  Staring at the originals of these carefully hand-scripted documents, with faded signatures, worn edges and cracked parchment, brought a palpable sense of the miracle by which they have withstood the test of time.  The vision, the courage and the sacrifice of their drafters speak through the glass protecting their fragile facades.  The security and care taken to protect the papers alone seemed symbolic of the awesome responsibility we have to honor the sacrifice that went into them and to safeguard the promises they contain.As I looked at the Magna Carta, I was reminded that our current legal system has emerged from a nearly 800-year-old principle that justice should be equally accessible to all.  Its words, “to no one shall we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice,” are the foundation for the principles of due process of law expressed in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  Article II, Section 16, of the Montana Constitution uses language nearly identical to the original:  “Right and justice shall be administered without sale, denial, or delay.”The promise reflected in these words is that all of our citizens, not just those few with a law degree, should hold a key to their courthouse doors.  Respect for the rule of law – a sense of confidence that the legal system will protect the rights our Constitution guarantees and will give everyone a fair forum in which to resolve their disputes – is the reason the Constitution has endured.  If the courts are not accessible in a real way, if people believe they have no resort to the rule of law, public confidence in our system of justice begins to erode.Especially during times of recession, economic problems beget legal problems – loss of a job leads to loss of housing, difficulties with consumer debt, fights at home – and the reality is most Montanans cannot afford to hire lawyers to help them resolve their problems.  Yet these problems are no less life-altering than the legal issues faced by people who can afford the finest attorneys.  Unquestionably, both litigants and the court system would best be served if everyone had the services of a lawyer who could advise them and represent their interests in court.  That simply is not the world in which we live.Because unmet legal needs often involve the basics of life – food, safety, shelter – more and more Montanans are representing themselves in court on a variety of civil matters.  When people turn to the courts, they need to have some basic tools to help them navigate an overwhelming system of laws, regulations and procedures.  For someone with an eighth-grade reading level or even a high school diploma, being handed a 150-page stack of forms and instructions does not open the courthouse doors or level the playing field.Self-help resources, such as simple legal forms and instructions for completing them, go a long way to assisting both litigants and the court staff and judges who process and hear their cases.  Making basic information available neither encourages unnecessary self-help litigation nor solves the dilemma of ill-prepared litigants coming to court.  But it is an integral piece of what should be a continuum of resources in each community to make sure people receive the proper legal assistance when they need it.  That continuum should include services of a qualified attorney when the circumstances require, up to and including direct representation in some cases – whether provided pro bono, by a non-profit legal services provider, or through a modest means program.One size does not fit all in our modern justice system.  It takes a new vision of shared resources and cooperation to craft a system that will give more people the opportunity to have meaningful access to the courts.  Through the hard work and tireless efforts of many dedicated Montanans over the years, partnerships have formed between community organizations, lawyers, libraries, schools and universities, governments and courts to create a coordinated system of comprehensive self-help resources and qualified legal assistance.  These are today’s visionaries and their work has brought us far along the path.  Through our openness to these innovative approaches and our commitment to the common goal, we can and we will achieve our Constitution’s guarantee of equal justice for all.